Restaurants closed in Athens on Friday, March 13. For Sophia Vracha, it was a “horrible” day, a real “Friday the 13th,” as she put it. Together with her parents, Nikos and Mary, Sophia runs Kissos, a taverna in Chalandri that I wrote about when things were still “normal,” just about a month before the city went into lockdown.
While it was a hard day for the family, they had seen it coming. “There was a rumor out and about in the week before it happened,” Sophia said. As she described it, a general feeling of uneasiness and insecurity was in the air. People really began to panic when Covid-19 arrived in Italy, thinking that it was just a matter of days before the virus would come to Greece.
For about ten days prior to the measures being taken, their workload dropped significantly – they saw fewer of their regular customers and a large decrease in the lunch takeout and delivery they offer to the many nearby offices. “It was shocking,” Sophia said. “It was even more shocking seeing my father so devastated. Working at the restaurant for most of his life, he had never experienced something like that. We had the economic crisis a few years ago and just as we were finally coming out of it, this happened.”
They were fully stocked up for the weekend when the government decided to shut down all restaurants on Friday. “So much food,” Sophia said. “We were expecting [the measures] for some time but we still had to be prepared for the coming weekend. What could we do? We recovered from the shock and we started packing up everything to give it all away.”
Although they had the right license to remain open for takeout and delivery, they decided against it. Members of their family fall into the “fragile group,” including Sophia’s father. They decided safety comes first, plus the terms of the government’s assistance plan essentially encouraged them to do so. “If we didn’t close down that day we would not have been able to receive any benefits or aid from the government,” Sophia explained. “Not for us nor for our staff. From the moment we closed we ensured that our staff could still receive a ‘salary’ from the government. We also secured ourselves both by receiving some aid for the business, and from not risking the chance that we wouldn’t be able to pay our staff if we didn’t have enough work to sustain the restaurant.”
The first days were the hardest – Sophia is used to working long hours, and having so little to do was a very new sensation. She lives right above Kissos, so it was extra sad seeing the shuttered taverna every day. But soon enough, the creativity began flowing: She took up painting and ceramics, and even started a cooking blog. She went for runs, danced and did online video chats with her friends, which left her relaxed and feeling good. “It’s so priceless to actually have the time to think and rediscover yourself and your needs,” she said.
I spoke to her last week, as restaurants were preparing to open on Monday, May 25. Sophia and her family are excited to start working again and doing their best to stay positive as they get ready for the “new normal.” She really doesn’t know what to expect – with the new social distancing regulations, they think that they can only fit five tables in their yard. They were trying to read between the lines of the law to understand whether they can keep any tables indoors and, if so, how many (some clarity was later provided – indoor seating is permitted).
What is clear is that a maximum of six people (with an exception made for larger families) can dine at the same table, numbers that would make it difficult for the family business to survive. So they are mainly focusing their attention on takeout and delivery. “That’s what the new normal will be,” Sophia predicted. “For people to order their favorite dishes from their favorite restaurants and then enjoy it in their own garden with as many people as they please.”
She’s really looking forward to opening Kissos again, welcoming their devoted clientele, and finding her rhythm. “I can’t wait to see my dear customers enjoying our charcoal-grilled chicken once again!” she said with a big smile on her face.
Her main concern right now is the taverna’s staff: More than the coronavirus, they are worried about their jobs, especially if business doesn’t pick up. Sophia doesn’t even want to contemplate this scenario, and she’s determined to stay optimistic and positive for the rest of the team.
Perhaps her most immediate concern, in the lead-up to reopening, is wearing a mask day in and day out – all restaurant workers are now required by law to wear one while working. “I really don’t know how I am going to do it this summer with the heat and this horrific medical mask stuck on my face and nose, having to take orders and speak to customers at the same time,” she said. But knowing her, we are more than certain she can pull it off.
And, in fact, when I visited Kissos on Tuesday, their opening day, Sophia was in fine form despite being decked out in a mask and gloves (as were her parents, a waitress and the kitchen staff). Outside in the yard, they managed to fit eight smaller tables, one of which was occupied by two men having their lunch. The rest of the taverna was empty.
Since it was raining and a bit chilly, my son and I chose to sit inside by an open window. I had been craving charcoal-grilled lamb chops for a while now, so I ordered that and grilled pork sausage, a Greek salad, meatballs with fries and their amazing zucchini chips that my little boy was crazy for (he barely touched his fries!). They also offered a takeaway box with makaronia me kima (the Greek take on Bolognese) for my son to take home for his dinner. We obviously ordered more than we could handle – thank goodness they gave us a doggie bag – but we were excited to be dining out again and wanted to support one of our favorite spots. And now we can extend the joy of eating out yesterday with leftovers today.
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